(This story will run in Sunday’s News Tribune)
American troops should be out of sight from polling places today as Iraqis elect a parliament for the second time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers are working behind the scenes throughout the country.
From Baghdad to Basra to Diyala, many of the 12,000 troops from Lewis-McChord have trained Iraqi soldiers to secure today’s polling. They will also provide support and remain on call to intervene in any attacks.
For many troops, the vast majority of whom arrived in Iraq last year, today’s election is the climactic event of their 12-month deployment.
And for ordinary Iraqis, the election represents a pivotal moment in the nation’s post-invasion history. Much remained unknown as the country went to the polls: Would there be violence? Would the Sunnis, who largely boycotted the 2005 election, vote en masse? Would Nouri al-Maliki remain the prime minister? And if not, how will his successor view the presence of American troops?
“If they are secure, legit, credible elections, and the people come out and vote – and there’s every indication right now they’re going to vote across all sectors of society – and then that government is seated, that’s a huge step forward for Iraq,” Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the I Corps chief of staff, said in an interview in February.
I Corps and its roughly 1,000 soldiers are in the midst of returning home to Lewis-McChord, although the headquarters is still officially in charge of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq for the election.
The Americans will provide assistance to Iraqi security forces in areas of expertise where the latter is lacking, such as aerial reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, close-air support, explosive ordnance disposal and medical evacuation.
U.S. troops are positioned throughout the country, far enough from polling sites so Iraqi civilians won’t notice but close enough to respond to an attack.
Such an intervention, Lewis-McChord officials stress, can only happen at the request of the Iraqi military.
“We’re not to be seen, but we’re not to be on bases either,” said Lt. Col. Darron Wright, deputy commander of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – a Stryker brigade deployed to western Baghdad.
Col. Steven Bullimore, commander of 17th Fires Brigade in southern Iraq, put it this way: “Be ready, stand by and stay out of the way.”